While most other kids their age were goofing off, teenage brothers Ariel and Ron Shlien, then 15 and 14, respectively, were touring Montreal, making science presentations to children and their families, investing money to grow their venture and building a business.
The Shliens officially founded The Mad Science Group Inc. in 1985, nearly 10 years after they first offered science demonstrations to children at Montreal-area camps and YMCAs. Today their company has franchises in 18 countries, including the United States, Saudi Arabia and Taiwan, teaching kids about every aspect of science from a wellspring of 2,000 hours of content through shows and activities. For their programs that focus more on entertainment than education, Mad Science also operates a production company and has partnered with Scholastic Books to create a book series.
Franchise Zone spoke with Ariel, 32, president and CEO, and Ron, 30, executive vice president, about creating and growing their company, and what factors age and family have played in their success.
Franchise Zone: Where did the idea come from?
Ariel Shlien: We were always interested in cool, fun, entertaining aspects of science. When we were about 12 or 13, we invested our money in a laser, built a laser light show and rented it out to disc jockeys. We started doing activities for kids in summer camps and at the local [YMCA], and word of mouth just spread. We started realizing there was an opportunity here and a market to go after.
Ron Shlien: We also took a very visual approach to the way we delivered our program, so when we did a program at camp or a Y, we took the laser apart and filled a room with theatrical smoke, really trying to get kids engaged. The first program we did at the Y was with four or five children; by the time we finished the program, our class was bursting at the seams. Children and adults walking by were so intrigued that they stayed to watch. After those first classes, we'd have a line going down the block where we'd have 100, 150 kids on a waiting list for a program with a maximum of 20 attendees available, so it took off very, very quickly.
Did you experience any challenges starting this business due to your age?
AS: Absolutely. Initially, people didn't take us very seriously when they realized how young we were. We had to do a lot of things over the phone. Fortunately, we sounded older than we were. Sometimes, when we had to go to our initial customers and pick up checks, we actually pretended we were couriers picking up these checks for our parents.
When we started franchising, however, we had a solid track record, so it wasn't nearly as difficult. We were young, but we were presenting the Mad Science opportunity, which spoke for itself. We had developed the system quite extensively, so when people came in, although everyone knew it was a [new] business and the founders were young, franchisees found their expectations were exceeded.
When you started this business at such a young age, how did it work? When did you find the time?
AS: Again, the business really had two distinct stages to it: The first stage was in our basement, when we were in school full time, and for 10 years, this was a part-time thing for us. We would work on the business as a break from our studying. We never really viewed it as work. We were having so much fun and enjoying ourselves, and certainly the response we were getting from the kids and parents was extraordinary.
After graduating [from college], we actually had full-time people working in the business, yet I was working at another full-time job, because I never really took the business that seriously. After about a year and a half, seeing the business grow and really take on a life of its own, I realized the amazing opportunity here, and I didn't want to look back the rest of my life and say, "I wish." So Ron and I decided we were going to make a go of it.
How did you decide to do this as a full-time business?
AS: It kept growing and growing over a 10-year period in our basement. Families that had moved away would still call us, from Toronto, from Florida, from New York, and we realized there might be an opportunity beyond just Montreal. So we built it, and it just kept growing, and as we got older and as we brought in the scope of our vision for the company, the company kept growing to fill that vision.
We realized one day there was a huge opportunity here and that kids are kids-they like Mad Science all over the place. Something that drove home the point was when Ron went to Florida and helped us get onto cruise ships. There were kids from 55 different countries on the various ships, and some of them didn't speak English, but all of them loved Mad Science. So the question in our mind was then, what's the best way to get Mad Science in the hands of kids around the world? That's how we came up with franchising.
Did you study business in school?
RS: Both of us went to the McGill Business School here in Montreal. For our science content, we were able to get a pretty great group of people here in our research and development group-scientists, teachers and educators-who come up with our content.
AS: Interestingly enough, we initially created the business plan for Mad Science from a franchise perspective when we were in business school at McGill.
RS: It was part of our final project, our thesis.
When you went to business school, was it specifically to work on this business?
AS: It just made sense to do our projects on Mad Science, which would always broaden our vision for it. When we graduated, we realized we had a wonderful opportunity, and it kind of happened from there.
RS: A lot of the other students were more theoretical-they were trying to learn about business so they could get a better job or start something in the future. We were already operating a business, so everything was very practical for us. The lessons we learned, like marketing and PR, were applied immediately. For us, it was very, very helpful.
Did going to business school change any of the ideas you had for the company or make you rethink goals?
AS: I'm not sure if it helped us change goals. It helped us [develop] practical solutions and prevent some of the mistakes you learn about in the texts. If we were doing a case study on a different company, we understood the problems they'd encounter and make sure to avoid those types of problems.
What kind of reaction did you get from your business professors? Did they think Mad Science was a good idea?
AS: We're still in touch with our professor of entrepreneurial studies. He has been a mentor to us for years and was one of the original inspirations for turning Mad Science into a franchising system and growing and developing this with worldwide potential. He just thought this was the most incredible idea he'd ever heard and saw this going worldwide. He was very encouraging; in fact, many of our professors were incredibly encouraging.